MacBooks - to deploy or not to deploy, part 1

Most of you know that I just got a new MacBook and really love it. On a personal level, it's darned close to perfect for what I do.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Most of you know that I just got a new MacBook and really love it. On a personal level, it's darned close to perfect for what I do. Writing; systems administration; creating movies, presentations, and websites; and otherwise getting my jobs done come very naturally (and come in a lightweight package that easily slips into my messenger bag). Everything really does just work. The ads, to this point, seem quite accurate.

However, what works really well for me may not make sense for a large-scale deployment in a public school. I feel like I make good use of all $1400 worth of MacBook goodness (including the $140 I spent on 4GB of memory from Crucial). I'm not so sure for 3/4 of the teachers in my school. Sure, I'd back them off to 2GB of RAM, but RAM is cheap. Does the Mac add enough value in OS X and it's bundled applications to justify its cost (I know comparably-configured Windows machines don't have much a price differential - I'm talking about low-powered cheap machines for my low-powered users)? Maybe more importantly, are the users I support flexible enough to exploit its power without getting bogged down in the fact that it isn't Windows?

I'm breaking my assessment into two pieces. The first is my own take as a teacher, administrator, writer, etc. Will it help me do my job better, especially when looking at developing materials for classroom use? The second part will come after we return from vacation and I have an opportunity to demo OS X for several teachers and get their impressions.

To answer my own question, though (will it help me do my job better?), I think I can safely say yes. Within a matter of minutes this past weekend, I had created a DVD-based slide show from a set of pictures. The integration between the iLife applications (bundled with OS X, with apps for photo editing, video editing, web site creation, DVD creation, and music production) makes the process so easy that users can focus on content, rather than the details of getting the technology to work.

While the DVD was a simple "this is your life" birthday gift, I could have been vastly more sophisticated with just a small amount of time. I never touched the Help screens; I just clicked around the spare interfaces and the software did what I wanted. Would other teachers who tend to be a bit more technophobic feel the same way? I don't know, but my more intrepid users would have a blast.

I think part of what made my transition to OS X so easy was that I was already using Ubuntu exclusively before I switched. I was already comfortable with multiple desktops (called Spaces on the Mac and accessible with a quick flick to one corner of the touchpad) and used them extensively. Unix-style directory structures with home folders and all the trimmings were also common to OS X and Linux. Even the OpenGL graphics from Ubuntu and the slick windowing tricks built into the Mac OS looked familiar.

For habitual Windows XP users, the switch to Vista or OS X will have a few bumps. Kids won't care, in general, but we're considering a teacher deployment here. OS X and Vista just look different and we all know how much most of our users like change. For my teachers, I'm actually tempted to roll out Ubuntu or OpenSUSE with a classic KDE or Gnome interface (turning off all of the Compiz-style graphics) because it is closer in feel to XP than Vista or OS X and has major advances in stability and security over XP.

For me, though, the countless keyboard and touchpad shortcuts (two-fingered scrolling and tapping are now so natural that I really miss then on other laptops), the snappy interface, and slick bundled applications mean that I'll take my MacBook over any other machine right now. I'm so busy that I don't have the time for tinkering (as power users are wont to do on a Linux box); I need to create podcasts, build websites, and navigate the web as quickly and efficiently as possible. I need to embed multimedia in my presentations and my websites seamlessly and easily. I need to share a variety of content with my students, users, and readers. iLife and iWork (cheap academic licenses are available for Apple's productivity suite, which also integrates quite well with iLife) help me do that in ways that Windows definitely can't and in ways that Linux is still trying to pull together.

While many have criticized Apple for building hardware and software that only work with each other, this kind of integration is really difficult for a community of developers to achieve, making Linux brilliantly suited to the enterprise, but not as well-suited to more creative endeavors. As always, content creation is where the Mac shines, largely because of the great bundled applications and certainly because of the integration of the applications with each other.

Being a teacher (and writer, and parent, and whatever else) is a full-time creative job. In part 1 of my assessment, the Mac definitely comes out on top. I'm actually looking forward to getting back from break and giving my teachers a chance to explore Windows Vista, Ubuntu/Kubuntu, and OS X so that I can complete the second part of this evaluation and make some decisions for purchases this summer.

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